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Bomb attacks rock Shiite shrine south of Syrian capital Damascus

More than 60 people have been killed in three bombings near a revered Shiite shrine south of the Syrian capital, Damascus. State news agency SANA also reported that 100 people have been wounded.

According to state media, the blasts were caused by a car bomb and two suicide bombers. More than 60 people, including many civilians, were killed during the attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization that relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said the attack occurred in the district of al-Sayeda Zainab in southern Damascus. The initial blast occurred when a car bomb went off near a security checkpoint in the area, followed by an explosion caused by a suicide bomber.

Among the dead were 16 pro-regime insurgents, according to the Observatory. Syria's state news agency SANA meanwhile has reported that many of the dead had been civilians. An eyewitness told a state news channel that bodies were "still being pulled from the wreckage," pointing to a rising numbers of casualties.

Syrien Damaskus Moschee Schrein Zainab bint Alis

The shrine, just south of Damascus, is considered to be one of Syria's holiest Shiite sites

Initial reports said that no one had claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Agence France-Presse later reported that the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) had claimed responsibility for the attacks. IS has previously taken credit for similar attacks. Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki said the attacks had been prompted by "terror groups" who sought to "raise their morale after a string of defeats" by the army in recent weeks.

The heavily populated area in southern Damascus is an important pilgrimage site for Shiites from Iran, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world. A shrine there houses the remains of the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad, whom the Shiite faith considers as successor to the prophet.

Attack comes as Geneva talks commence

The attack came as representatives from the Syrian government and opposition groups had started gathering in Geneva for UN-sponsored peace talks aimed at reaching a political solution to Syria's civil war.

But before the talks, an opposition representative made it clear that they wanted to discuss purely humanitarian issues in Geneva amid "insurmountable" obstacles, such as lifting sieges and ending the bombardment of civilian areas, before engaging in any political negotiations.

The Syrian conflict is estimated to have killed more than 250,000 since it began in 2011. It has also driven more than 11 million people from their homes, according to UN estimates.

Watch video 02:21

Syrian opposition to join peace talks

ss/cmk (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)

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